Celebrating Africa, demonizing Israel: Chika Okeke-Aguru

Chika Okeke-Agulu

We’ve been looking at a recent New York Times article by Chika Okeke-Aguru, a professor of African Art at Princeton who fretted over the fact that rich Sotheby’s customers were snapping up artworks from the Dark Continent that should, in his view, remain publicly owned parts of Africa’s own cultural heritage.

Noting that most Africans have little access to the work of artists from their own continent – and that Lagos, for example, doesn’t have a single museum that exhibits a famous Nigerian artist – Okeke-Aguru whined: “This is no small problem.”

To which we asked yesterday, and will ask again now: compared to what?

GDP per capita, 2015

Compared to the fact that most of the 55 countries in Africa are considered “Not Free” by Freedom House, that most of the others are considered “Partly Free,” and that only ten – Senegal, Ghana, Benin, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Tunisia, Sao Tome and Principe, Mauritius, and Cape Verde – are considered “Free”? Compared to the fact that in a world map of countries that have been colored according to gross domestic product, on which GDPs below $5000 are bright yellow and richer countries are marked in ever-darkening shades of olive, almost the entirety of Africa shines out like the sun?

A neighborhood in Lagos

Nigeria, the country in which the aforementioned city, Lagos, Africa’s largest, is located, is actually one of the continent’s richest nations, with a per capita GDP of $2,640. Africa also jumps out on a map showing worldwide life expectancies, with most countries having an average age at death between forty or and sixty, while the corresponding ages in virtually the whole rest of the world range between seventy and ninety.

The University of Cape Town, considered the best university in Africa by the London Times, comes in at #148 in the world on the Times’s 2017 list

Want more? Look at the corruption statistics. The rape statistics. Gay rights? Forget about it. And how about the prevalence of primitive practices unheard of elsewhere on the planet – such as the murder of women suspected of witchcraft and the amputation of limbs from albino children by superstitious illiterates who think they bring good luck? How about the lack of a single decent university anywhere on the continent, with the exception of a few institutions in the Republic of South Africa?

This 2006 work by Yinka Shonibare also raked in the big bucks at Sothebys

Honestly, compared to all this, how important is it that a sculpture made of old bottle caps won’t be readily available for in-person scrutiny by the artist’s fellow Ghanaians? Yes, yes, as Okeke-Agulu puts it, “art is an important resource with which societies imagine their world.” And so on – blah, blah, blah. Any longtime reader of the New Your Times could quickly develop that point into a paragraph not so very different from the one in Okeke-Agulu’s actual article.

One wonders: if it’s so important that Africans be intimately familiar with their own continent’s artworks, why is Okeke-Agulu wasting his vast knowledge of the subject on the student body of Princeton University? Why isn’t he on the faculty of the University of Ghana, or the University of Ibadan, or the University of Nairobi?

Well, part of the reason is that Okeke-Agule doesn’t spend all his time teaching courses in African art. He also puts a lot of effort into an activity for which an Ivy League campus is the perfect setting: anti-Israeli activism. He calls Israel an apartheid state and a practitioner of ethnic cleansing. He supports academic boycotts of Israel. He has agitated on behalf of Palestinian terrorists who are currently incarcerated in Israeli prisons.

Benjamin Netanyahu

According to the Canary Mission website, he “tweets articles from Mint Press News, a ‘super anti-Israel’ website that frequently compares Israel to ISIS.” In a 2014 article, he “minimized the terrorist actions of Hamas” and criticized Israel for responding to those actions by destroying the terrorists’ “attack tunnels.” He has smeared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a racist and participated in a campaign to get Princeton to divest from companies with Israeli ties.

Okeke-Aguru (second right) at a Princeton ceremony where he won an award

It is interesting – though hardly surprising, in these twisted times – that a professor who teaches about African art at Princeton would appear to have little or nothing to say about the drastic poverty, severe lack of freedom, abominable human-rights records, primitive quality of education, rudimentary sanitation, massive corruption, and savage cultural practices that still reign in most of Africa, but is able to sheds crocodile tears over the purchase by rich white Americans of a few Ghanaian art works made of bottle caps. Add to that the fact that this Africa-centric fool, while blithely ignoring the multitudinous ways in which Africa is a holy mess, finds it useful to contribute to the demonization of the State of Israel – a world-class model of individual liberty, cutting-edge scientific and technological progress, and so on – in short, a land that’s far more advanced, in any way you can think of, than any of the 55 nations on the African continent.

Africa’s biggest problem? Art auctions!

Chika Okeke-Agulu

Let’s start with an article by Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of African and African Diaspora Art at Princeton University, that appeared in May in the New York Times. In his piece, Okeke-Agulu reported that Sothebys, “the granddaddy of auctioneers,” had recently raked in almost $4 million at its first-ever auction of modern and contemporary African art. “The star of the sale,” Okeke-Agulu wrote, “was the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s sculpture made from discarded aluminum bottle caps and copper wire that went for about $950,000.”

“Drifting Continents,” artwork by El Anatsui

Of course one might expect that an Ivy League expert on African art would consider this news a cause for celebration. How wonderful that Americans are willing to pay such big bucks for African artworks! Surely if the auction had turned out to be a big bust, Okeke-Agulu, or somebody else in a similar position, would have written a piece for the Times, or some equally important mainstream publication, complaining about the West’s lack of appreciation for African art. Perhaps the word “racism” would even have popped up.

But since all this stuff sold so well, what to say? Well, to begin with, Okeke-Agulu did acknowledge an upside. The $4 million take, he surmised, “most likely signals the beginning of a more serious interest” in African art “from Western museums, which may finally start to consider such work worthy of inclusion in their permanent collections.” Which, he admitted, is a good thing.

El Anatsui

And yet…

Well, it goes without saying that Okele-Aguru had a “yet.” And this was it: “In this inexorable march to the mainstream, I am tempted to think of contemporary African art as akin to an urban neighborhood undergoing gentrification. Now that it is seen as high culture, the art and artists are gaining value, investors are jostling to get a piece of the action, and private collections are growing in Africa and around the world.” While this development may yield tidy profits for some of the “African modernists…who set out to create new art for independent Africa during the mid-20th century,” it will amount to a terrible loss for others.

Sotheby’s New York

Who? Why, “the continent’s masses,” naturally. “They will be denied access to artworks that define the age of independence and symbolize the slow process of postcolonial recovery.” Alas, lamented Okeke-Agulu, “whole countries in Africa cannot boast of a single art museum of any renown.” For example, consider Lagos, which despite being “one of the world’s largest cities” has no museums containing “the work of a big-name Nigerian artist.” Okeke-Aguru’s verdict: “This is no small problem.”

Compared to what? We’ll pick this up tomorrow.

The case of Picasso

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Pablo Picasso

After World War II, the myth spread that Pablo Picasso, while living in Paris during the Nazi Occupation, had stood up valiantly to the Germans and served as a rallying point for the Resistance. In truth, Picasso had had nothing whatsoever to do with the Resistance. On the contrary, he’d frequently welcomed German officers to his studio on the rue des Grand-Augustins, where he hosted them with warmth and hospitality.

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When Stalin died in 1953, the memorial issue of the Communist paper Les lettres françaises featured a front-page portrait of the dictator by Picasso

But if Picasso was, in a relatively small way, a useful stooge for Adolf Hitler, he went on to become a truly big-time stooge for the other great dictator of the day – Josef Stalin. Soon after the 1944 liberation of Paris, Picasso joined the French Communist Party. He explained this move in “Why I Became a Communist,” a 1945 essay for The New Masses. “My joining the Communist Party,” he wrote, “is a logical step in my life, my work and gives them their meaning.” While he had sought to serve man through his art, the Occupation had taught him that he “had to fight now only with painting but with my whole being.” He had joined the Party because it “strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy.”

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James Lord

None of this bilge satisfied his friend James Lord, the American writer, who in 1947 asked Picasso to explain why he’d joined the Party. Lord recorded Picasso’s curious reply in his 1994 memoir Picasso and Dora: “Everybody has to belong to something, he said, to have some tie, to accept a loyalty. One party being as good as another, he had joined the party of his friends, who were Communists.” Lord was troubled by this reply: “I had heard of Siberian concentration camps and ubiquitous secret police and the reign of terror, had read Darkness at Noon. And if I knew anything, Picasso must have known more, must have known especially of the murderous treacheries perpetrated in the name of the Party during the Civil War in his homeland. Could the painter of Guernica” – Lord’s reference, of course, is to Picasso’s 1937 antiwar painting inspired by the Spanish Civil War – “have failed to learn of all that?”

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Czeslaw Milosz

In the years that followed, Picasso became both the symbol of and primary source of funding for the French Communist Party. Lord wryly describes the painter’s “Communist Party hangers-on who often arrived just at lunchtime with fanatic appetites, ready to rant all afternoon against American perfidy and bourgeois evil, then ask Picasso for a hefty contribution before departing.” During these years, as Alex Danchev has written“the conscience-wrenching dramas of the cold war seemed to pass him by. When Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and the Prague spring in 1968, he had nothing to say.” In a 1956 open letter, indeed, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz upbraided Picasso for his silence on the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

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Guernica (1937), Picasso’s famous antiwar mural

James Lord, too, addressed an open letter to Picasso that year. Noting that the Spanish artist had often attested to his belief in the “spirit of freedom” and to his “disgust for tyrants and assassins,” Lord asked him how he could possibly continue to identify freedom with the Soviet Union. “Today,” wrote Lord, “the hands of your comrades, those you have so often clasped, are dripping with blood; they have written once and for all in letters of iron and fire what Communism is….Can the painter of Guernica remain indifferent to the martyrdom of Hungary?” Lord urged Picasso to heed “the obligation which weighs upon artists, trustees of civilization” and to “repudiate the errors of your political sympathies.”

Spanish-artist-Pablo-Pica-006Picasso’s reply? First, he had a mutual friend phone Lord and give him hell: “How dare you write that way to Picasso?” Second, Picasso and several other Communists issued a statement in which they reaffirmed their unqualified devotion to the Party.

To sum up: he may have been the greatest artist of the twentieth century. But he was also, at best, a moral fool who befriended the functionaries of one monstrous dictatorship, and then – after only a few weeks of post-Liberation freedom – became a proud vassal and poster boy for another. Artistic genius does not guarantee either political wisdom or moral courage.